I hate to criticize, but…

I think one of our prominent national liberal bloggers has it wrong. Well, slightly wrong.

I’ve been mulling the whole kerfuffle over Barack Obama’s “patriotism problem” for a couple of days. An AP article by Nedra Pickler jump-started much of this. Since then, the liberal blogosphere has lit up – quite rightly and more quickly than I have – at how stupid these attacks are and how quickly and uncritically the mainstream media pick them up. Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post here, and Jane Hamsher has another excellent one here.

However, I want to point out one thing Jane Hamsher says in that same post:

It’s incredible that a news source which purports to be legitimate would embrace and perpetuate this kind of stuff; common sense dictates that it should stay where it was birthed, in the right wing sewer.

I imagine many other liberals share this take on things, but speaking from my perspective in the Midwest, there’s nothing “common sense” about it.

The threat from this kind of “patriotism attack” is real to many progressives who don’t live in parts of the country where responses like this one are easily accepted:

(The blogger is responding a photo included in his post that carries a caption that says Obama’s lack of patriotism might be “exposed”.) Exposed as what exactly? Not wearing a flag pen is to be “exposed” for not adhering to the Fox News/Republican Party-version of patriotism, which means meaningless gestures like wearing a lapel pin are far more important than words and deeds?

I totally agree with this statement, but you see, these are not considered “meaningless gestures” in many parts of the country. Instead, it’s considered a noble act to publicly proclaim your patriotism in this way. It’s like that “Jesus fish” that some people put on their cars.

From my perspective, progressives have to stop being so dismissive of these attacks and treat them for the serious problem that they represent. It’s just one of many issues for which progressives need to develop better “comebacks” than simple derision. Some of those are:

  • Liberals are weak on national security.
  • Liberals seem to want the U.S. to fail in Iraq now that we’re there.
  • Liberals just want to take my money and give it to undeserving people.
  • Liberals just tax and spend.
  • Liberals are anti-religion.

There are others. And yes, they all line up neatly with conservative talking points. Let’s face it. Those conservative talking points work! They work in kitchen table conversations, in churches, in workplaces, in bars. They work in the real world where ordinary people are living their lives and don’t have a lot of time, energy, or inclination (let’s be honest) to think through how wacko the conservative movement is and how badly it serves them, their families, their nation, and the world.

There’s a gap in the communication efforts of the progressive movement. Elite discourse is fine. Web-based stuff is great, too. But the movement needs to find ways to arm its supporters – and people who would support it – with simple, clear, compelling arguments that help them defend themselves in the real world of their working and family lives. We need to win more of the kitchen-table conversations. And a first step toward that is by treating these kinds of attacks like the “patriotism problem” seriously.

Now, it seems that Barack Obama did a reasonable job of defending himself in this case. Here a couple of quotes from a CNN article:

Asked how he would fight the image of being unpatriotic, Obama said, “There’s always some nonsense going on in general elections. Right? If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. If you recall, first it was my name. Right? That was a problem. And then there was the Muslim e-mail thing and that hasn’t worked out so well, and now it’s the patriotism thing.

“The way I will respond to it is with the truth: that I owe everything I am to this country,” he said.


About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.

“A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans’ benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

“That is a debate I am very happy to have. We’ll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.”

I thought this second one was better. Turn it around on the conservatives and give it back as good as they give it.

But perhaps most importantly about this, he did it without fear. Glenn Greenwald makes this point, too. Obama didn’t run cravenly from accusations that he wasn’t patriotic and start plastering flags on himself and everywhere. He simply came back with an explanation and turnaround – plain and strong.

Now just to be fair, let me say that Jane Hamsher also laid out a plan of attack and developed a way to stick it back to the mainstream media. I just want to make the point that we need to realize that the progressive movement’s communications need go beyond elite Washington and media discourse and beyond the Internet.

P.S. I voted for Barack Obama, but I’m not trying to shill for him. I think he also totally blew it in Texas with his defenseof the liberal label. More on that in another post.

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